Lt-Gen Sir Henry Leask
(Filed: 23/01/2004)

Lieutenant-General Sir Henry Leask, who has died aged 90, won a DSO in the Italian campaign in 1945; he proved himself both a vigorous front-line commander and a highly capable staff officer.

In April 1945, the Germans made a stand at Argenta in north-east Italy. By flooding a large area, they left themselves a narrow strip of land to defend between the town and Lake Comacchio, known as the Argenta Gap. On April 18 the 8th Battalion Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, part of the 78th Infantry Division, was ordered to capture the village of Consandolo to the north of Argenta.

Commanded by Leask, then a major, it quickly ran into stiff opposition. Four of the supporting tanks were knocked out by German armour and self-propelled guns, and the leading companies became involved in fighting on the eastern outskirts of Boccaleone to the south. Leask swung his two reserve companies to the north across ground intersected by drainage ditches and canals. After heavy fighting, they were held up short of their objective; the battalion, which had been in action for seven hours and had only four serviceable tanks left, was ordered to break off for two hours.

At 3 pm Leask led another attack behind an artillery barrage, which resulted in the capture of Consandolo and cut the main road from Ravenna to Ferrara, opening the way for the armour to resume its advance northwards. This was the turning point in a hard day's fighting in which 500 prisoners were taken by the division. Leask's leadership, sound judgment and dogged perseverance were recognised by the award of the DSO.

Henry Lowther Ewart Clark Leask was born on June 30 1913 at Hugesovka, near Odessa, Russia. His father, the Rev James Leask, was then chaplain to the British Consulate General. Young Henry was educated privately before being commissioned into the Royal Scots Fusiliers in 1936.

He served with the 2nd Battalion at Catterick and Aldershot before being posted to the 1st Battalion in India in 1937. On returning to England with the battalion on the outbreak of war, he served as adjutant and subsequently as a company commander. After a spell as chief instructor at the Royal Marine Division Tactical School and attendance at the Staff College, Camberley, he joined General Montgomery's staff at South Eastern Command and HQ Second Army as GSO2 (Training).

In 1943 Leask served as brigade major at HQ 3rd Infantry Brigade in the 1st Infantry Division in North Africa and, the following January, took part in the invasion of Italy. During the bitter and often confused fighting at Anzio, with heavy casualties being suffered on both sides, the pressure on commanders was enormous. Leask's task was no easier for having a brigadier who was said to resort to the mental stratagem of regarding his soldiers as actors in a Shakespearean play, with the stage directions being given by himself. But Leask's staff work was of a very high order, and the command structure that he put in place proved a match for any strains placed upon it. His conspicuous ability in this appointment and his coolness in action in the hard slog north to the Gothic Line were recognised by his appointment as MBE.

In December 1944 Leask was transferred to the 8th Argylls as second-in-command. A brother officer said afterwards: "His ferocious exterior, embellished with an enormous moustache of a highly military design, concealed an engaging character with a strong sense of humour." It was a bitter winter with violent snowstorms, and Leask's formidable energy proved invaluable in ensuring that supplies got through whatever the conditions. He took command of the 8th Argylls in March 1945 on the Senio River line, and at once organised aggressive patrolling and harassing fire. One night a large explosive charge was buried in a bank under the position used by a German sniper and detonated electrically the next day; there were no further problems from that source.

After the war ended Leask commanded the 1st Battalion, the London Scottish, in Italy and Yugoslavia. He returned to England in 1947 to attend the RAF Staff College before joining the General Staff in the Military Operations Branch at the War Office. He moved to the Staff College, Camberley, as an instructor before being posted to the Canal Zone to command the 1st Battalion the Parachute Regiment. He then became assistant military secretary to the Secretary of State for War, and Commandant of the Tactical Wing at the School of Infantry.

In 1958 Leask took command of 155 Infantry Brigade in Edinburgh, and was promoted brigadier at the end of his three-year tour. After attending the Imperial Defence College, he returned to the War Office as deputy military secretary to the Secretary of State for War and, in 1964, was promoted major-general upon taking command of 52 Lowland Infantry Division. Leask moved to the Ministry of Defence in 1966 as Director of Army Training and was promoted Lieutenant-General in 1969 on his appointment as GOC Scotland and Governor of Edinburgh Castle. He was knighted in 1970, and retired two years later, when he moved to the Trossachs in Stirlingshire and then London.

Leask was Colonel of the Royal Highland Fusiliers from 1964 to 1969 and Colonel Commandant of the Scottish Infantry from 1968 to 1972. In retirement, he was appointed chairman of the Army Benevolent Fund in Scotland, a director of the Royal Caledonian Schools and of St David's Home for Old Soldiers. He was Queen's Commissioner of the Queen Victoria School, Dunblane, from 1969 to 1972.

Henry Leask, who died on January 10, was appointed CB in 1967 and OBE in 1957. He married, in 1940, Zoe de Camborne Paynter, who survives him with their son, Major-General Anthony Leask, and two daughters.